A quarter-century of memories: There at the start, Hibbert reflects on 25 years of Duluth National Snocross
Kirk Hibbert said it was just another race.All he cared about back then was making his snowmobile go faster, and in that way, some things have never changed.In 1992, 236 entrants made history at the first Amsoil Duluth National Snocross, even if ...
Kirk Hibbert said it was just another race.
All he cared about back then was making his snowmobile go faster, and in that way, some things have never changed.
In 1992, 236 entrants made history at the first Amsoil Duluth National Snocross, even if they didn’t know it. This weekend, the 25th annual running of the event at Spirit Mountain is expected to attract more than 30,000 spectators over three days.
Hibbert, 59, will be there as a crew chief with Arctic Cat, unlike that first year in 1992 when he was there as a racer, winning the Pro Lite division on the now-legendary Arctic Cat ZR.
“That’s so long ago, I don’t remember much,” Hibbert said, laughing. “There were several things in that sled that were pretty innovative that we were trying out there.”
As the kickoff to the snowmobile season, the Duluth National is where the snowmobile manufacturers debut their new sleds. Sometimes they’re right on, other times there is a lot of catching up to do. While racing pushes the proverbial envelope of development, Hibbert said sometimes the consumer product dictates what teams race.
“The racing definitely used to lead the direction more than it does now,” Hibbert said.
Hibbert is a racer, about as simple as that. While former Visit Duluth president and CEO Terry Mattson always like to give shared credit to Craig Hansen and Hibbert for the founding of the event, among others, Hibbert said he did nothing more than lend his advice, from a racer’s perspective. And what a racer he was.
“I gave some advice, but as far as the real work of making it all happen, I didn’t do much of that,” Hibbert said.
Hibbert is from Alta, Wyo., in the Teton Mountains, with the Idaho-Wyoming state line running through the property. He remembers racing something similar to snocross as early as 1969, but the natural terrain, built into the deep snow of the mountains, was significantly larger and not as fan-friendly.
“We’d do a snocross on Saturday and a short cross country race on Sunday,” said Hibbert, who raced competitively well into his 40s. “That was the local weekend, and then four or five times a year, there would be big cross country races, 100 to 130 miles, and they’d always be team races. It was strictly a fun thing to do. We entertained what crowd came. They’d watch the cross country races, but that wasn’t as much fun. If it was a point-to-point race, they’d watch you leave, and if they wanted to see who came in, they had to drive.”
Hibbert has lived his winters in Goodridge, Minn., since 1990, though he might say 1991. He speaks in model years. He would go back and farm in the summers, taking the family back and forth, in and out of school, before moving permanently to Minnesota in 1995.
Hibbert’s son, Tucker, went on to become the Michael Jordan of the sport, but nobody can remember if Tucker attended that first Duluth National.
“He should have been tagging along,” Kirk Hibbert said. “I’m sure he would have been pestering all the guys in trailers, or the gatekeepers. He was always a pretty busy boy. If we left him home for some reason, it was because he must have wanted to ride his snowmobile rather than go to the race. But for the most part, he tagged along.”
Kirk Hibbert said the crowd that first year wasn’t packed, but it only took a year or two before it caught on. Oval and cross country races had been king in Minnesota before snocross took root in the 1980s at places such as Quadna Mountain near Hill City.
“We had already been doing a season opener like that at Quadna, so from a racer’s standpoint, it was just like a new event to start with,” Hibbert said. “But within a year or two, it was definitely the place to be. It had built more of a prestige than the old ones ever had. It became a powerful race.”
Location, location, location.
Two hours from the Twin Cities, which has the largest concentration of snowmobile owners in the world, and with Duluth’s tourism infrastructure, the hotels and so forth, it was a natural fit. Mattson saw it as a way to fill those hotels during a typically quiet time, even if the thought of a snocross race that early drove race teams batty.
“You’re never ready enough,” Hibbert said. “I always keep saying, ‘Man, why don’t they just wait till after Christmas, so they don’t have to fight making snow, and we would know we’d have a good track and all that?’ But maybe we wouldn’t be any more ready than we are right now. Back in the day, I just wanted a place to race. Let’s go. I was so excited and into it. Now that I’m getting older and slower, I want more time.”
Due to its place atop a ski hill, Spirit Mountain’s space is limited. Hibbert prefers a longer track, a little more wide open, and he considers the Duluth National a bit of a headache, and the pits a disaster. With a throng of snowmobile fans cooped up all summer, longing for snow, it makes Spirit Mountain a zoo every Thanksgiving.
And that’s what makes the Duluth National Snocross special. The fact that it shouldn’t be, but almost always is, every year.
“We’re still doing a few touchups on the sleds, but they’re pretty much ready,” Hibbert said. “We wish we would have had some good conditions to give them more of a race-type test, but that’s part of Duluth. Just show up and go, right?”
Even Hibbert had to laugh at that.
Arctic Cat goes
Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., has a new motor package using electronic fuel injection. The sled is about as
American-made, even Minnesota-made, as it gets. After years using Suzuki engines, going back to the 1980s, Arctic Cat’s engines are being built in St. Cloud, same as its consumer models.
Hibbert said it comes with challenges.
“To stay competitive, you have to make so many rapid changes on the race sled,” Hibbert said. “So from year to year, you have to find improvement all the time. That puts real demand on the development part of it. It takes quite a bit longer to do calibrations, to get test parts in, when you start talking fuel injection, compared to just digging in the brass box to just find another piece to put in the carburetor.”
While it might take more time on the front end, Hibbert said the payback is justified once you have it running right.
“Then you don’t have to dig in that brass box every day,” Hibbert said. “You have to step up your development program, but the end result to the racer is much friendlier.”
25TH ANNUAL AMSOIL DULUTH NATIONAL SNOCROSS
What: World’s largest three-day snowmobile race
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Spirit Mountain
Forecast: Cloudy conditions and highs in the 30s for the weekend
Tickets: Adult tickets are $40 per day or $70 for all three days, or $35 and $55 for youth ($5 discount if purchased online at spiritmt.com)
Today’s featured event: $10,000-to-win Amsoil Dominator featuring one-on-one racing; opening round starts at 5:20 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network at 9 a.m. Dec. 10, 11 a.m. Dec. 12, 9 a.m. Dec. 17 and 11 a.m. Dec. 19
Parking: Shuttle buses available at Powerhouse Bar in Proctor for $5, as well as Proctor Fairgrounds ($10 per vehicle)